Somewhere along the road to adulthood, the incredible ideas we conjured as a child morph to the point where they become either watered down or disappear altogether. What happened?
Children know no boundaries when it comes to inventing things. They do not understand current technological limitations and hardly care that “this simply cannot be done”. They are extremely perceptive, far more than we think, and come up with extraordinary ideas to solve problems and to enable us to do things we couldn’t otherwise accomplish. Indeed, the mind of a child is an amazing thing. I see it in the drawings of my 9 year old son. He comes up with the most amazing stuff: a house that is fully self-sustaining (with detailed explanations to support it), a flying car, a multi-dimensional transporter, robotic extensions for humans to shield them from harm (creepy parallel here to Surrogates?). While many of the ideas are extensions of existing technology that improve on their current design, others (the multi-dimensional transporter comes to mind) are far out in terms of any known or verifiable physics today. Does this really matter? Why should it?
When a child asks a question, they are tenacious and not accepting of a simple answer, to the point that it can become exhausting … for us. “Why does something work this way?” A simple answer is insufficient. They want to dig deeper and understand it at its most fundamental level. “But why?” As we peel back the onion, they dig even deeper, and push us to a level of understanding of the problem that surpasses the knowledge we can summon off the top of our heads. It requires research and investigation … which requires time …. and patience. We often try to put an end to the inquisition by simply saying something like “Well, God made it this way” or “Because that’s how the Universe works” or simply just “That is impossible”, all in an authoritative tone (“I’m an adult, I knows best!”), and most times in respect or deference to our positions of authority as adults, they accept … even though we know that this remains an unsettled item for them.
I am thankful today for resources such as Wikipedia. My son is smart enough to realize that Dad doesn’t know everything. I try to answer his questions as best I can, but the conversation often becomes one of either “Well, Dad, I know you don’t know, but I’m sure Wikipedia does” or “I don’t know the answer, son, let’s go look it up on Google or Wikipedia”. But even these resources are limited. They tap the realm of “what is” as opposed to the realm of “what could be”. And here lies the fundamental issue, in my view. Over time, as we get older, we tend to become less concerned with what could be possible with what is possible. We learn that there are physical and other limitations to the way the world works today. We begin to implicitly accept that certain things (such as a multi-dimensional teleporter) are simply not possible, at least not with our current understanding of physics and other disciplines. History has shown that those who chose to ignore current limitations and push the boundaries of known science opened the door to new ways to view this Universe we live in and, ultimately, to spur innovation. Albert Einstein, for example, refused to believe that the Universe is limited to what we can see. The Wright brothers simply refused to subscribe to “common knowledge” that a machine is simply too heavy to fly. Their discoveries and inventions transcend simple engineering, they require a stretch … imagination. Imagineering.
Children are incredible imagineers and I think we have let them down. In the process, we may be depriving ourselves of a whole new wave of innovation that could push humanity beyond anything we can currently fathom. Understanding the current limitations of science is important as we get older. And that’s the key: accepting that the limitations of science are based only on our limited comprehension at a point in time. As we push the barriers and discover new insights into the Universe we live in, those limitations will be removed and new barriers to transcend will be set, creating a whole new era of understanding and innovation. This is what we have to teach our kids. When they ask us “Why”, we should be responding “This is what we know today, and what we know is possible today. But who knows, we may discover it is possible tomorrow. And you may be the one!” Provide context to the boundaries and limitations we face today, let them imagine and dream of the possibilities for the future … and let them follow through to perhaps one day realize what they imagined was possible as a child … to the benefit of us all. Imagineer!